Thoughtful Scaffolding During Guided Reading Instruction
“Saying or doing the just-right thing so that students do the cognitive work is a critical aspect
of teaching reading and writing,” say San Diego State University professors Nancy Frey and Douglas
Fisher in this thoughtful article in The Reading Teacher. The heart of small-group literacy instruction is
providing students with the scaffolding they need to move toward self-sufficiency in what Vygotsky
called the zone of proximal development – where tasks are challenging but not too challenging and
where expert help (not too much and not too little) will accelerate learning.
The skillful teacher provides scaffolds that guide, not simply tell, steps back and observes what
students do, continuously assesses how well instruction is sticking, and gradually releases responsibility
to the student. “The use of these scaffolds represents the intersection of the art and the science of
teaching,” say Frey and Fisher. “Perhaps this is why small-group guided instruction is often identified
as the most complex type of teaching.”
To capture how the most effective teachers do this challenging work, Frey and Fisher closely
observed 18 kindergarten through fifth-grade urban teachers. These teachers were “fairly systematic,
yet not scripted, in their approach to small-group guided instruction,” say the authors, and used four
kinds of scaffolding:
Checking for understanding:
• Elicitation questions – These ask students to give information or deal with a misconception
using previously-taught concepts or skills – who, what, when, where, why, and how questions.
• Elaboration questions – These are often follow-ups to the first kind of question, for example,
“Can you tell me more about that?” or asking a student to show where he or she found the information
and why it supports an answer.
• Clarification questions – These also follow up on elicitation questions to dig deeper into
students’ knowledge of the content, for example, “What evidence do you have of that trait?” and “You
read the word mighty. Tell me about that word.”
• Divergent questions – These ask students to consolidate concepts about two topics to
formulate a new understanding, often drawing on background knowledge – for example (in a thirdgrade class looking at a map of California), “Why might the Sierra Nevada mountain range be called
‘the backbone of the state’?”
• Heuristic questions – These ask students to formulate a problem-solving technique or rule of
thumb – for example, after reading two editorials on school uniforms, one written by the president of a
school uniform company, students were asked, “Are there techniques you use to make a judgment
about these letters?”
• Inventive questions – These invite students to use what they’ve learned to speculate or
create – for example, asking students to make a list of items that would be vital for an astronaut
traveling to Mars.
Prompting when students are confused:
• Prompting for background knowledge – Often students have the background knowledge but
haven’t activated it. When reminded, the frequent response is, “Oh, yeah!”
• Prompting for process or procedural knowledge – For example, a teacher might refer
students working on a composition to a checklist or rubric on the traits of effective writing.
• Prompting for models, templates, or frames – This would include using a mentor text to
understand and emulate the writing style of a particular author and a teacher urging students to use
the words hieroglyphics, writing system, and civilization in their group discussions on Egypt.
• Prompting for reflective knowledge – These get students thinking about their thinking –
metacognitive processes on how they are learning and how learning might be breaking down – for
example, What am I trying to accomplish? What strategies am I using? How well am I using the
strategies? and What else could I do? Younger students might be prompted with teacher questions like,
“Does that make sense to you?” and “How would you say that?” and “What can you do to help
Cuing students when they aren’t noticing something:
• Visual cues – Drawing students’ attention to illustrations, photographs, bold-faced words,
graphs, charts, diagrams, or blinking icons – for example, “Did you see the bear on this page? Take a
look at what he’s holding. That will help you make an inference.”
• Verbal cues – For example, “Watch out! This is a tricky word. Pay attention to all the parts.”
• Gestural cues – The teacher moves his or her body to focus students’ attention – for example,
using a specific gesture for finding the main idea or silently pointing to a language chart.
• Physical cues – This might include touching a student’s hand to encourage the student to keep
reading or touching a student’s shoulder to divert the student’s gaze to the left.
• Environmental cues – Teachers had word walls (which helped one student find the spelling of
the word beautiful) and sentence frames to help students understand – for example, “Some spiders
______, but all spiders ______.”
Direct explanations and modeling:
When questions revealed a lack of understanding and prompts and cues didn’t resolve the
issue, teachers explained or modeled. “In the language of the gradual release of responsibility,” say
Frey and Fisher, “these explanations required that the teacher reassume control of the thinking and
demonstrate how the task could be completed or the strategy could be applied.” For example, a fifthgrade teacher whose students were struggling with writing instructions took out a piece of paper and
wrote a sample introduction, thinking aloud as she did so.
“Identifying Instructional Moves During Guided Learning” by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher in The
Reading Teacher, October 2010 (Vol. 64, #2, p. 84-95), no e-link available; the authors can be reached
at [email protected] and [email protected]
Taken from AWSA MEMO 11/9/10 with permission

Thoughtful Scaffolding During Guided Reading Instruction